on Westworld, Batman and Bioshock, and Bethesda

1. I’ve been out of commission for longer than usual; we were out of town for a family wedding, and then the bulk of my evening free time was spent getting caught up on Westworld, which I adore.  I’ve said here before that I don’t often watch that much TV, and most of what I do watch is stuff that’s binge-ready (either because it’s a Netflix series like Stranger Things or the Marvel stuff) or that I completely missed during their regular run and which is now, in its current form, binge-ready (stuff like, say, Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad or what-have-you).

So I’m in an unusual place, then, with respect to Westworld; I’m watching it “live” (well, to be literal about it, I’m watching it on Monday evening after the kid goes to bed) and so I’m stuck on the same cliffhanger as everyone else.  I don’t have popular critical opinions cluttering my own perspective, as I’ve made it a point to avoid reading anything about it until after I get caught up.  And so what I can say about it is that, for the most part, I think it’s stunning.  The acting is fantastic (even if Jeffrey Wright doesn’t know how to wear glasses)…

…the cinematography is stupendous, and the writing is terrific.  The show is smart and confident and, thus far, knows exactly how much information they want to reveal with each episode, and I’m totally hooked.  I’ve read some stuff where people are frustrated with the pacing, or that they don’t like the mystery because it’s obvious where things are headed; I disagree.  Certainly I can see a number of different places where it can go, but there are too many things that remain enigmatic, and I’m happy for them to remain that way for the time being.

2. As far as games go, I’m still in this weird thing where I’m feeling disconnected from the game-playing process.  I’m in this weird lull in Forza Horizon 3 where I’m kinda just roaming around; I’m not feeling pulled towards Gears 4, even just to cheat and play ahead of my co-op campaign.

I rented the Bioshock remasters, mostly because I was curious about how they looked.  As far as the Xbox One versions, I was underwhelmed by the first game’s port; but then again, I’ve played that introduction sequence so many times that it’s no longer very interesting.  I skipped looking at B2 entirely and went straight to Infinite, and… yeah, that game’s world and presentation are still absolutely stunning, but the minute I started having to kill things, I could almost literally hear my brain checking out.

On the other hand, I also got the Batman Arkham Remasters, and those games still hold up.  With the occasional weird graphical glitch (on Xbox One), they are still gorgeous and fun and totally absorbing.  I’m breezing through Asylum at the moment and it’s just as terrific as it’s ever been, and I’ll happily play through City when I finish Asylum.

3.  I should probably offer an opinion with respect to Bethesda’s recent decision to no longer offer pre-release review copies to major outlets.  I can’t comment as a member of the press, because I’m not a member of the press; I’ve paid for (or paid for the rental of) nearly every single game I’ve ever played and discussed.  (Indeed, I think I’ve only ever received 2 codes for the purposes of writing reviews, and I didn’t get paid for either of those pieces.)

Anyway.  Do I think it’s bullshit?  Yes, of course.  Do I think it’s intensely hypocritical for publishers to deny critics a chance to review a game while also using those same critical voices to write preview pieces?  Yes, without question.  Do I think it’s ridiculous that Bethesda isn’t allowing professional critics to review their games before release, but that they are giving copies to prominent YouTubers and other “influencers”?  Oh boy oh boy, yes I do.

Will other prominent publishers follow suit?  And do I think this could start an alarming precedent wherein traditional games journalism and criticism becomes irrelevant?

Mmmmmaybe?

I think there will always be a place for long-form written criticism – this is what I want, and this is what I’d have liked to have done professionally – though I suspect that the audience for that particular style will, sadly, diminish in time.  Game journalism is moving into all sorts of weird directions, and a lot of it is heading towards video streaming (which might actually generate some revenue) and podcasting (which almost always doesn’t).  I, personally, have neither the time nor the inclination towards consuming my criticism in those forms, but that’s neither here nor there.

The fact of the matter is that Bethesda is doing this so that slightly-less-than-great review scores don’t affect pre-order numbers.  And yet pre-ordering, in this age of digital downloads, seems largely irrelevant, doesn’t it?  I mean, in the past, I pre-ordered physical copies at a Gamestop because, if I didn’t, then I was shit out of luck for weeks until a new shipment came in.  Amazon made this a little easier, though in my personal experience “release-date delivery” usually still meant “a day or two later”.  Right now, the only advantage to pre-ordering a digital download is the pre-loading of a 50-60 GB file; you’re basically spending $60 for the privilege of instant gratification.

There are people out there with takes much more knowledgeable than mine, obviously, and so I have no idea how much this is going to mess things up for the press.  But if nothing else, the practice of taking games out of the hands of critics in order to maximize day-one profits should finally and definitively answer the question as to whether Games are Art.

>pardon the cobwebs

>I would say that there’s no excuse for the absence of posting here over the last month, but that’s not entirely true – there are several valid excuses I could come up with, and I’m sure I could make up a bunch as well. 

But here’s the deal:  the last entry here talks about my failure at Starcraft 2.  Since then, here’s what I’ve played:

  • Madden 11.  I’ve always been one of those long-embittered 2KSports football fans who hated Madden and EA and everything it stood for.  But Madden won, of course, and if you have a serious jones for videogame football, it’s Madden or bust.  And, as it happened, I started getting inexplicably excited for football season to start, and this year’s Madden got good reviews, and I had some credit on Amazon that was burning a hole in my virtual wallet, and so there it is.  I’ve played about 10 or 11 games in my Franchise, which is set on Rookie difficulty, mostly so that I could get all the Achievements I cared to get as quickly as possible.  FUN FACT:  It is almost impossible to get the “Return 2 kicks for TDs with the same guy” Achievement on Rookie difficulty, because the opposing team is so terrible that they almost always go 4 and out, and you’re lucky if you get to return just one kick – the one that leads off a half.
     
  • Lara Croft & the Guardian of Light.  It’s pretty good for what it is, and I imagine it would be a ton of fun if the online co-op ever got turned on.  Unfortunately, I think I’ve played all I’m ever going to play of this one, because now that Halo Reach is out I’m not sure that anyone will care enough to go back to this. 
  • Mafia 2.  I actually did prepare a blog post for this; I had taken a sick day right after it arrived from Gamefly and accidentally/inadvertently finished the whole game in about 10 hours.  Here’s what I can salvage:

Sometimes you can tell, just from the first 5 minutes of play, if a game was cared about in development.  After all, in today’s ADD world, where developers have the balls to charge you to participate in a “beta”, 5 minutes might just be all you get, and so it’s probably a good idea to put your best foot forward (while still keeping the big guns for later in the experience).  Sometimes it’s painfully obvious – the frame rate might be shitty, or the controls might be clunky and unresponsive.  Or, perhaps, it’s just that certain areas of the game received more attention than others – sure, things explode pretty good, but the dialog and the voice acting both feel like first drafts; or, the driving model is responsive, but the combat sucks.

Mafia 2 was cared about.

But that doesn’t make it a great game.

I was out sick yesterday, and I convalesced by playing the entirety of Mafia 2 (and, also, something else that I am not at liberty to discuss, wink wink nudge nudge).  And when I was going to sleep, I started thinking about how I would write about it, and I had this really well-written opening paragraph all set out, which was going to reference both this Joystiq article about how venerable games industry analyst Michael Pachter thought that Mafia 2 would probably be unprofitable, and this very well-written Rock Paper Shotgun review, which (among other things) made the salient observation that comparing Mafia 2 to GTA4 totally misses the point, and how Mafia 2 really needs to be compared to Mafia 1.

  •  Anyway, yeah, there wasn’t much to talk about after I finished Mafia 2.  It is a bland experience in an otherwise beautiful world.
  • Professor Layton & the Unwound Future.  This just arrived in the mail on Monday, and… it really bums me out that I don’t like these games anymore.  And the reason why I don’t like these games anymore is because the puzzles, i.e. the reason why this game exists in the first place, have a tendency to be poorly written.  They can be unfairly difficult.  Or, most egregiously, they can only be solved with a walkthrough, and even then, the explanation for a puzzle’s solution is obtuse or unclear.  The story is interesting, though, at least.
     
  • Mass Effect 2: Shadow Broker DLC.  This is kind of a big deal, if you’re a Mass Effect nerd.  The nuts and bolts of the DLC are pretty much just more combat, with a cool little vehicular chase scene (with the requisite shitty controls); so in that regard it’s nothing special.  But from a story perspective… wow.  The ending of the DLC seems to be a pretty big deal, in terms of the ME universe, and yet the fact that a lot of ME2 fans might not see it would indicate that it won’t really have that big an impact on ME3, which is kind of a bummer.  Anyway – if you’re an ME2 fan, it’s highly recommended.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum.  I got excited for the sequel and decided to give this another playthrough.  And it’s still as good as it was the first time.

And that brings us to yesterday, when my copy of Halo Reach arrived.

I’ll have more to say on Halo as I get further into it, but basically:  it’s Halo.  And, also:  I don’t know if I like first-person shooters anymore.  Or, rather, that the third-person action genre has gotten so good that first-person shooters kinda feel a little antiquated.  As in:  how come I can’t use cover?

The Best Games of 2009

If I’m being completely honest, 2009 was a bit of a let-down, and not just because it followed the staggering heights of 2007 and 2008, or that so many high-profile titles eventually slid to a 2010 release. Case in point – Resident Evil 5 was my #1 title, purely by default, right up until August.

August, of course, is when Batman: Arkham Asylum was released, and from that point on it seemed that every week held something of promise. And what made 2009 so special is how so many of the good games seemingly came out of nowhere. Uncharted 2 certainly lived up to its hype, but who could have foreseen how good Borderlands would turn out to be?

Here’s my take on the year that was, starting with some raw data.

I played 76 games that were released this year. Of those:

  • 42 were on the 360 (including the 2 bits of GTA4 DLC);
  • 15 were on the PS3 (not including 2 PS1 titles which were made available on PSN in 2009);
  • 8 were on the DS;
  • 7 were on the Wii;
  • 4 were on the PC; and
  • 0 were on the PSP, which is just as well, since I traded it in towards the WiiPlus remote in July.

I “finished” 19 of those games. That doesn’t mean 100% complete; it means that I finished a game’s main single-player mode. In alphabetical order:

  1. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
  2. Assassin’s Creed 2
  3. Batman AA
  4. Beatles Rock Band
  5. Borderlands
  6. Flower
  7. Ghostbusters
  8. God of War Collection (both 1 and 2)
  9. InFamous
  10. The Maw
  11. Modern Warfare 2
  12. Outrun Online Arcade
  13. Peggle PC
  14. Peggle DS
  15. Resident Evil 5
  16. Sacred 2
  17. Shadow Complex (twice)
  18. Uncharted 2
  19. Uno Rush

And now for some arbitrary superlatives:

BEST NEW IP: Can Batman: Arkham Asylum count, even though it’s based on an existing IP that everybody in the world already knows about? No? Even though it felt remarkably fresh and exciting? OK, then it goes to Borderlands, which maybe lacked in story but certainly made up for with art design, mechanics, and sheer feel.

MOST CRACK-LIKE: Here we go, I’m about to lose whatever cred I might have had. It’s true that I got hooked on Borderlands this year, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the diabolical combo of Facebook’s own Farmville / Bejeweled Twist. Bejeweled I can at least explain: when work gets boring, Bejeweled is a great way to get through the day, and Twist features some great stat-tracking and leaderboard integration. But Farmville? I don’t even like real farming, or even going outside. There’s no enemies in Farmville; there’s no real challenge. And once you plant your garden, there’s nothing to do until everything’s finished growing. And yet I’ve logged into it pretty much every single day since I got started with it earlier this summer, and I’ve even spent real U.S. currency on stupid power-ups for it. I am currently at level 37, which means there’s no new seeds for me to unlock. I have “beaten” Farmville, and yet I’m only #2 amongst my friends. Zynga, I have no idea how you do what you do, but I have succumbed to your will and there is nothing I can do about it.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: To be fair, I only played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for about 30 minutes, but that was long enough for me to know that this was never going to be as joyously awesome as MUA1. I’m not enough of a comic book nerd to appreciate whatever changes they might have made to the roster; I just wanted some kick-ass beat-em-up RPG action. MUA2 felt clunky, under-polished and soul-less. I had very high hopes for MUA2 – I’d hoped it would get me through the summer doldrums, and instead it got send back to Gamefly and I ended up being productive with my life.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLATFORM: PSP. The Wii was pretty inessential this year, to be sure, but at least it tried. The PSP, on the other hand… I don’t even know where to begin. Wait a minute, yes I do. It had no games. It didn’t even have any bad games that I could at least rent as an excuse to dust the damned thing off. I traded in my PSP and the 7 (old) games I had for it towards Wii Sports Resort in July, and even if I’d accidentally set Wii Sports Resort on fire before I’d made it home from making that transaction, it would have been worth it.

WORST GAME OF THE YEAR: And maybe this is because my expectations were far too high, especially for a puzzle game. But let me be clear: I bought and played the original Puzzle Quest on both DS and XBLA and loved the hell out of them, and was looking forward to Puzzle Quest Galactrix with an anticipation that bordered on rabid. Galactrix was a mess on pretty much every conceivable level; it looked ugly, it had an unacceptably shitty frame rate (it’s a fucking PUZZLE game!), and it took forever to load. And, of course, the actual puzzle itself was completely unintuitive and featured an enemy AI that cheated even worse than the original Puzzle Quest, which is saying quite a lot.

BEST GAME I DID NOT FINISH: This is a tie between two of the DS’s best: GTA Chinatown Wars and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. While I can’t remember why I eventually put GTA down, I do know that I got stuck in M&L right near the end. Chinatown Wars was quite an accomplishment – it really felt like GTA, even with the DS’s hardware limitations, and the little touch-screen minigames were clever and engaging. Mario & Luigi, on the other hand, was as good as I’d expected; maybe it tried a little too hard with the humor, but the mechanics were as solid as ever.

FAVORITE NON-LINEAR ACTIVITY: Driving around the heavy-metal landscape of Brutal Legend. I never was able to get past (or even into) the RTS business, which is a shame because as a result I never got to see the rest of the world, and the world of Brutal Legend is as fantastic and unique as any game I’ve ever seen. I did as many side quests and found as many hidden collectibles as I possibly could, and that never stopped being entertaining. The Deuce Coupe was a pleasure to drive. Runner-up: grinding on rails in InFamous.

BEST GAME I COULDN’T GET INTO NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRIED: Tie between MLB09 and Street Fighter 4. MLB09 is absolutely the greatest videogame adaptation of baseball I’ve ever seen, and I’m terrible at it. I can pitch decently enough, but I can’t hit to save my life, even if I tweak the options so that it’s more or less slow-pitch softball. Likewise, I can appreciate Street Fighter 4’s artistry and charm, and it certainly brought me back to my childhood playing SF2 with my brother on his Genesis, but I couldn’t win more than 2 matches against the computer even on Very Easy.

BIGGEST INCONGRUITY BETWEEN EXCITEMENT FOR THE RE-RELEASE OF A BELOVED OLDER TITLE AND TIME SPENT PLAYING SAID TITLE: The XBLA release of Secret of Monkey Island. I made it out of the first town, saw the opening cutscene that opened Part 2, put it down, and never got back to it. I’m such an idiot.

MOST UNFAIRLY DERIDED / BIGGEST SURPRISE: Resident Evil 5. I’ve been seeing this pop up on a few “Worst Games of 2009” lists, which is odd, because I seem to recall it getting pretty good reviews when it was first released. Anyway, I can’t speak to the multiplayer, which I never tried. And I can’t compare it to RE4, which I tried playing on the Wii for about 20 minutes before wanting to break it in half, such was my frustration with the controls. What I can say is that I played the shit out of this game. I played it enough to unlock infinite ammo for the super bad-ass Magnum, which in technical terms means “a lot.” The game’s mechanics are awfully contrived and yet they still worked, and some of the game’s levels are truly wonders to behold – I’m thinking of the ruins of Chapter 4, specifically. I went into RE5 hoping that it would be engaging enough to get me through a dull winter; I emerged with it as one of my favorites of the year.

BIGGEST GAME THAT ENDED UP BEING SOMEWHAT OF AN AFTERTHOUGHT / MOST OVERRATED: Considering how drastically it altered the release calendar, as most publishers moved their big titles to 2010 Q1 just to get out of its way, it’s more than a little interesting to see how far down the radar Modern Warfare 2 has slipped for me. The game’s multiplayer strengths are without peer, certainly, and the SpecOps co-op mode is truly something to savor, but the single-player campaign ended up being somewhat ridiculous, derivative, and just plain weird. The “No Russian” level was as controversial as advertised, but perhaps not for the reasons the developer may have anticipated; similarly, the game’s constant attempts at shock value and upping the ante ended up being nearly comical, if not simply incomprehensible.

MOST ANTICIPATED GAME THAT I HAVEN’T PLAYED NEARLY ENOUGH OF: Without a doubt, this goes to Left 4 Dead 2, which I’ve played exactly twice. There’s no excuse, other than that my preferred group of friends to play it with live in different time zones and it’s hard to get everybody together at the same time.

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT: Unlike in years past, I can’t really recall one particular Achievement that stood out from the rest. So I’m going to give it to whichever Achievement it was – presumably in Assassin’s Creed 2 – that put me over 50,000.

BEST TREND: Quality DLC. And I’m including regular XBLA/PSN arcade titles in this as well, because there were a LOT of great games that emerged without corporeal form. Remember how everybody fawned over Braid a few years ago? A lot of that was because there wasn’t really much else for it to be compared with. This year saw the release of Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Flower, Pixeljunk Shooter, The Maw, ‘Splosion Man, and Shatter; and while they might not have been as artful and meditative as Braid, they were all really well made and loads of fun to play. But to then add GTA4’s 2 DLC campaigns, as well as most of Fallout 3‘s DLC and Borderlands, and it’s clear that DLC is for real.

MOST OVERLOOKED: InFamous. I keep forgetting how much I enjoyed this one. At first glance it felt more or less like a Crackdown clone, but it had a lot of personality and a remarkable level of polish. Perhaps it felt a little, I don’t know, small; it didn’t take that long to finish the story and all the sidequests. But it’s definitely in a good place for the inevitable sequel, which I suspect is going to be stupendous.

I HAVE NO IDEA WHY I SPENT SO LONG PLAYING THIS GAME, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH OF IT THERE WAS TO DISLIKE: I actually finished Sacred 2‘s single-player campaign, which in retrospect I feel like I ought to have won some sort of medal for. That game did not deserve the 40+ hours I sunk into it, especially as I generally played it with the sound off, because it featured the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard. But that’s the Diablo formula for you; mindless hack-and-slash action never seems to get old. This is proof positive that the first half of 2009 was severely lacking in quality content.

THE 2009 “10 MINUTES OR LESS” ALL-STARS: These are all the games I played in 2009 that, for one reason or another, I played all I was ever going to play in 10 minutes or less:

  • Halo 3:ODST. I’m officially done with the Halo franchise; I just don’t care anymore. I’ll probably try Reach, but out of curiosity/boredom, not out of need.
  • Lego Indiana Jones 2. Not sure this warranted a second iteration, considering how terrible the 4th movie is.
  • Super Mario Brothers Wii. I rented this and tried to play it with my wife; we both eventually ran out of lives and didn’t really care one way or the other.
  • Prototype. I stopped playing this because it sucked.
  • Wolfenstein. It didn’t necessarily suck, but it felt awfully by-the-numbers and uninspired.
  • Fuel. I think Codemasters did this, which is why I rented it in the first place – I’m a huge fan of DiRT, and thought GRID was OK. Maybe Fuel needed more capital letters?
  • Henry Hatsworth. I rented this thinking it might be something to keep me occupied on an upcoming weekend holiday, saw that it wouldn’t, and sent it back.
  • MX v ATV Reflex. Talk about uninspired! These games are usually worth at least a couple hours of screwing around; this just had nothing in it for me.
  • Onechanbara. Not really sure why I rented this one; it was pretty horrible.

THE “I REALLY NEED TO FINISH THESE GAMES” LIST: These are games that I was enjoying and got distracted from, or games that I just never had enough time to get into but still want to revisit.

  • Left 4 Dead 2.
  • Demon’s Souls. Maybe this shouldn’t be on this list. I played it right up until I died for the first time, saw how much I’d have to do in order to get back there, and decided to send it back to Gamefly. But I think that’s only because I was impatient and didn’t really have the time to truly punish myself; I can see why this game has supporters.
  • Ratchet and Clank. This (and others on this list) were victims of the Gamefly Curse, so named because if something else was coming up right behind it, I either had to play it enough to buy it or send it back immediately so that my Queue wouldn’t get screwed. I liked the first PS3 game, and while this one wasn’t necessarily knocking my socks off it was still pretty good, but I had to make way for something and it just wasn’t good enough to keep.
  • Dragon Age: Origins. If this list were being ranked in order of regret, this would be right at the top. I just haven’t had the time to get immersed in it, and the 360 version is just clunky enough to make it difficult to get into.
  • Little King’s Story. I’m not much for strategy games, but this Wii title was engaging and charming and had some interesting things going on. I may yet re-rent it and give it another go.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla. I finished the first “world”/”area”/”section”, drove around a little bit in the second area, and for whatever reason got sidetracked and never picked it back up. It wasn’t amazing, but it was certainly entertaining.
  • Scribblenauts. Once I heard about the magnet/vending machine glitch, I kinda stopped caring. But enough time has gone by where I could probably give this another go with some fresh eyes.
  • Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I generally do most of my DS playing right before bed. I was somewhat enjoying this one – I got right up to the part where your train gets a cannon, so obviously I’m not that far in but I still had enough of a taste to know what was in store. But then I got a Kindle as an early birthday present, and as a result I’ve been reading before bed instead of DS-ing.

THE GAMES I CURRENTLY HAVE OUT FROM GAMEFLY THAT I REALLY WANT TO PLAY BUT HAVEN’T REALLY GIVEN ENOUGH TIME TO, WHICH PROBABLY WON’T AFFECT THE TOP 10 BUT YOU NEVER KNOW: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Dead Space: Extraction. I’ve given Silent Hill about an hour or so – the chase sequences are a bit wonky but the rest of it is exactly what I’d want out of the Wii controls, and it truly feels unique and exciting. I have not yet tried Dead Space, and I’m hoping to do that before the end of the week.

And now, without further ado, THE TOP 10 GAMES OF 2009.

10. Flower. I am not necessarily all that interested in debating if games qualify as art anymore; there are plenty of shitty films, books and albums that come out every year that shouldn’t qualify as art, either, and yet the Earth continues to not crash into the Sun. That said, Flower is as close to playing a dream as anything I’ve ever experienced, and for that I am in awe. It uses the PS3’s motion controls better than anything else on the platform; it should be the last game on the system to use them, frankly, until the wand comes out in 2010.

9. Torchlight. I said it before in talking about Sacred 2 – mindless hack-and-slash never gets old, and when it’s really well done it’s positively narcotizing. I haven’t yet finished Torchlight, but it’s not like there’s a story – I’ve left- and right-clicked enough to know that this game is well worth its price tag. Also – I miss gaming on my PC. My PC is 5 years old and struggled to run World of Warcraft 3 years ago at an acceptable level; Torchlight scales remarkably well and it runs like a dream on my ancient machine.

8. Resident Evil 5. I talked about it before, but I didn’t mention how fantastic the game is at encouraging multiple playthroughs; the rewards for doing so are quite thorough and worthwhile. It’s definitely archaic, and the series could definitely do with a reboot, but I’m of the opinion that it went out with a thoroughly enjoyable bang.

7. InFamous. Again, probably the most overlooked gem of the year. I have high hopes for the sequel.

6. Shadow Complex. I played through it twice, the second time opening 100% of the board, and I loved every minute of it. Outstanding.

5. The Beatles: Rock Band. Well, this certainly lived up to my expectations, even if I never successfully guessed the set list. Aside from being a remarkable adaptation of the Rock Band formula, the game featured oodles of cool miscellanea for the true Beatles nerd; never-before-heard studio banter, photographs, biographical information – all of it presented with tender loving care. I’m not sure any other band will manage to cause the same stir with their own vanity imprint; once again, the Beatles got there first and did it better than anyone else.

4. Borderlands. This came out of nowhere and became an instant favorite; it outdid Fallout 3 at its own game. Fallout 3 certainly had a better narrative, but its combat was always clunky and slow-paced, and the world was oppressively brown. Borderlands took the Unreal engine and finally did something truly cool with it – indeed, it’s the first cel-shaded game in years that really matters. But most importantly, it absolutely nailed the combat. Shooting just felt right; guns felt suitably powerful and each minute change in weaponry had a tangible impact in the field. I’m on my 2nd playthrough – I think I hit level 41 the last time I played, and I’m going back and forth between the Zombie Ned DLC and the regular game world.

3. Assassin’s Creed 2. Had I given an award for most improved sequel, this would’ve been it. It kept everything that worked in the first game, got rid of everything that didn’t, and then added a ton of cool stuff that made it even better. I was worried that it would end up getting swallowed up by Modern Warfare 2’s immense shadow, but as it turned out it held its own quite admirably. I enjoyed virtually every minute I spent playing it; the only reason it’s at #3 is because the games at 1/2 were that much better.

2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I went back and forth with it, but putting this at #2 shouldn’t mean it’s any less deserving. I was genuinely astonished at how good this game turned out to be, and when I played it last week it still felt as good as it did when I first tried it out. It’s a complete package; a good story, fantastic voice acting, immersive graphics, intuitive and thoroughly satisfying hand-to-hand combat, challenging puzzles, and a world that is detailed and littered with things to do and see. But most of all, it makes you feel like you’re Batman. When you set up a trap, turn on your nightvision and swoop out of the darkness to knock out a thug, you feel like a badass. It’s a remarkable achievement and one can only hope that next year’s sequel (!) is given the same amount of time and care that went into this one.

1. Uncharted 2. I saw Avatar this weekend; I kept my expectations low. All I really wanted out of it was to see something I’d never seen before, and to that end I was thoroughly satisfied. The movie itself was pretty good; a little hokey, a little cheesy, but certainly good enough to justify the absolutely mind-boggling visuals. And, dear God, those visuals were astounding. Uncharted 2 had similarly mind-boggling visuals, at least for its medium, and from beginning to end I saw stuff I’d never seen before in a game. But to its credit, U2 is far, far more than its good looks. The game’s got charm. It’s got charisma, and it’s got personality. And it’s also got pathos. Nathan Drake is as 3-dimensional as an action hero can get, and considering that he’s completely polygonal, that says quite a lot. U2 might not be the paradigm-shifter that Bioshock or Portal might have been, but that’s not giving it enough credit for being what it is, which is the best interactive roller coaster ever made. It is absolutely reason enough to own a PS3; it is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.

>Talking About Talking: The Fake SFTC Podcast

>We’ve been wanting to get a STFC podcast going for a while, now, and we’ve been so busy with other things that we haven’t been able to figure out the logistics of making it happen. (Speaking of which, if anybody reading this can recommend a reliable method of recording Skype calls, please leave a comment below.)

In the absence of having a podcast, then, what follows is a fake transcript of what a STFC podcast might sound like, as we’ve been having a rather interesting email conversation about Uncharted and Brutal Legend over the last few days and we don’t feel like keeping it to ourselves:

Gred: Goddamn, the Uncharted 2 reviews have me salivating!!! They even motivated me to start clearing my plate for its release. I went back and played a bunch of Batman. I think I’m nearing the final act (just left Croc’s lair, now on my way to have it out with Poison Ivy in the Botanical Garden). Once that’s wrapped up, I’ll go back and push through Uncharted 1. And if there’s still time left over before U2 comes out, I’ll finish HL2 Episode 2. I hope you won’t be too quick to swear off Uncharted 2 multiplayer! I know you’re not an online shooter guy, but if it’s as fun as the initial buzz suggests, then there should be plenty of fun to be had even by the sucky…

Fuck. I just remembered that Uncharted 2 and Brutal Legend come out on the same day. I’ll buy both, but how am I supposed to choose one to play first???

Jervo: 1. You are indeed near the end of Batman. But I would make preparing for U2 your highest priority.

2. I tried the U2 multiplayer demo last night for a few minutes; it’s definitely U2 multiplayer. As combat is my least favorite part of Uncharted in general, I’m not entirely sure how much time I’m ultimately going to spend with it (especially since my bluetooth headset doesn’t always work), but it’s solid and clearly no joke. If you’re so inclined, I’d say you should download it when you get home, and maybe we can try it out together before getting DiRTy.

3. I’ve preordered both U2 and BL, and having played the BL demo already, I think my choice is clear; I’m playing U2 first. I liked the BL demo, although I’d already seen most (if not all) of it already – it’s more or less what they showed at E3. And I must admit that I’m not as excited about BL as I feel I ought to be. The more I hear about it and how it changes from a GoW action game to more of an Overlord-type RTS, I get a little… I don’t know… nervous. U2, on the other hand, is right in my sweet spot; that’s the sort of game I want to be playing right this second.

Gred: I’m super excited about BL. I totally trust Double Fine. Psychonauts certainly wasn’t perfect, and parts of it were tedious, but it was all wrapped in such a terrifically imagined world with such outstanding writing that I was able to forgive a lot. I don’t expect BL to be the be-all end-all in terms of its gameplay, plus I’m beginning to wish Jack Black had never become involved, though that has admittedly provided a good visibility boost which should help sales. But until Double Fine fails me I will buy their games on day one, RTS elements and all. So that’s why the strategy stuff doesn’t make me nervous as far as my own enjoyment of the game. But it does worry me from a potential sales standpoint… A game based on an original IP that doesn’t lend itself to easy categorization could find itself in limbo at retail. Not that Double Fine should kowtow to the mainstream 100%, but Lord knows they could use a hit.

That said, I probably will play U2 first. Seems like U2 lends itself more to burning through the single player campaign in a fevered rush, whereas I could see myself taking my sweet time with BL.

Jervo: I’m an old-school Jack Black fan; I am generally embarrassed whenever he appears in anything these days (except for Tropic Thunder) but I loved Tenacious D before it was cool to do so, and everything I’ve seen of BL confirms that it was a perfect casting choice. (I was going to say something snarky here about how voice acting’s impact on gameplay is less than negligible, but that’s not necessarily true; it’s only true when it’s obvious that 90% of the development budget went towards the voice acting. Frankly, one of the things that made the first Uncharted so endearing was the quality of the voice acting, and all the reviews indicate that U2 is even better in that regard.) I’m sure BL will be enjoyable, and I’ve already ordered it, so I feel like I’ve done my part in terms of supporting DoubleFine. It’s just that, well, U2 is going to be jaw-dropping.

Gred: Dunno if you saw that Action Button reviewed the first Uncharted: http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=607. I haven’t read it yet, but I assume it’s a great read!

Jervo: I told you about this the other day. They call it a “murder simulator.”

Gred: Oh. Right.

Yeah, so I read it. Definitely not one of their better pieces. I thought they’d take it somewhere more interesting, but they kind of briefly made their point, and then the review fizzled out.

Jervo: Well, considering that our main problem with the game is that you can’t kill the bad guys easily enough, I think it’s a pretty insightful point to make. The game does such a fantastic job in terms of story and presentation and motivation and yet it can’t be ignored that you’re killing hundreds of human beings – and I was never actually sure why I was killing them, except that they were in my way. It’s a similar observation to that of going to Rapture in Bioshock and eating potato chips out of the garbage that are at least several years old and getting healthier as a result.

Gred: The Bioshock potato chip thing makes very little sense, particularly because of how dissonant some of the contrivances in Bioshock are with their bend-over backwards attempts to get you to buy into the plausibility of Rapture, as the ActionButton guys brilliantly observe and explain in their review.

All the Uncharted killing, though, makes at least some sense to the extent that all of these guys are trying to kill you. I agree that the combat gets tiresome and that the game would have been more interesting with fewer, more considered confrontations. But movie-like games remain games nonetheless. They require a different sort of suspension of disbelief than movies do. Drake is not Indiana Jones. Drake leaps up crumbling fortress walls hundreds of feet up as a matter of course, whereas if Indy did that repeatedly (rather than, say, as a unique set-piece moment) we might not so readily accept it in the context of a movie. It’s not apples to apples.

But if we do want to compare apples to apples, I don’t really see how Uncharted is all that different from most large-scale shooters. How is exterminating all of these guys is different from annihilating untold numbers of Covenant, German soldiers, Locusts, etc.? Sure, those are framed as larger-scale “save the world” scenarios, but at the end of the day it’s still “Kill them or they’ll kill you.” Drake’s own adventure admittedly starts as a mere treasure hunt, which is hardly the noblest of causes nor one that would justify a triple-digit body count. But as far as I’ve gotten in the game, they’ve worked in enough alternative motivations (search for and rescue Elena, avenge Sully) that the killing just doesn’t bug me from a moral standpoint (though it gets pretty damned tiresome from a pacing/fun perspective). Plus, the enemies in Uncharted are presumably mercenaries, i.e. men who have entered the private army business for money. These guys (including Drake!) are all vying for a big fat prize, and they are all willingly playing a high stakes game. In that regard, it wouldn’t be a tragedy from a story perspective if Drake was killed during his quest. He’s a mercenary of sorts himself. From a gameplay perspective, of course, his death sucks.

The Uncharted body count doesn’t keep me up at night. Far less morally challenging or ambiguous than, say, the countless games which turn World War II into a shooting gallery. (Sure, I play them. But there is something about it that’s unsettling.)

Jervo: Indy’s personal body count in Raiders, by my perhaps faulty recollection, is actually rather low. He punches a lot of dudes, and knocks out a few guys to change clothes, but he really just shoots that one dude with the sword – and according to film legend that was an ad-lib by Harrison Ford because he was violently ill and didn’t want to do the fight scene choreography. The guy he fights by the plane ends up getting his own head chopped into sushi; shit, even God ends up killing more dudes than Indiana Jones.

I’ll admit that the combat in Uncharted is necessary as it breaks up the action and creates a different sort of tension. It’s a game, after all, and you kill dudes in games. And it was clearly something that the design team thought about and tried to implement as well as they possibly could – the cover system works well, the death animations are convincing, and the whole thing would’ve been perfect if the enemies hadn’t been so bulletproof. As long as we’re talking about Uncharted influences, Tomb Raider’s combat (at least in the more recent, better iterations) is not nearly as much fun or as well implemented – of course, there’s not nearly as much of it, either, so it kinda evens out.

But I submit that Uncharted is different from other large-scale shooters because Nathan Drake is not a soldier, and he’s not saving the world. He’s not killing aliens or Nazis or zombies. More to the point, I don’t want Uncharted to be Modern Warfare with platforming and puzzles. My favorite parts of Uncharted – as they are in Tomb Raider and other games of that sort – are the exploring and the puzzle solving, when you’re not rushing against a clock or dodging bullets, and you’re free to examine the environment at your own pace. That’s the part where you actually feel like a treasure hunter, because it’s actually you and your brain that’s solving the puzzles; that’s the part that could actually happen in real life. You don’t have to suspend any disbelief (other than the idea that every archeological find can only be found by moving blocks onto weighted floors).

Gred: See, that’s where I think their point is interesting. Would/could Uncharted have been a sales hit without all that shooting? Shooters sell. Is there a “realistic” style exploration-based adventure game that sold out there? I can’t think of one. So they are totally right to call bullshit on all of the gamers who cry foul and say “Not all games have killing!” Right. Just the ones that sell. And 85% of the games I buy. But I still find the term “murder simulator” to be a bit silly.

Jervo: Would Uncharted have been a sales hit without the shooting? No, probably not. Does that suck? Yeah, it kinda does. Can we be grateful, then, that the combat mechanics in Uncharted are at least well-designed and constructed, except for the bulletproof enemies? Absolutely, and that’s probably got as much to do with why the game did so well as anything else. Hell, that’s why they built a whole multiplayer mode around it.

BUT.

There’s still way too much killing in Uncharted than is necessary for the game to still be successful and enjoyable, and that’s a stone-cold fact. And the fact that the enemies are bulletproof merely exacerbates how tedious it becomes, this killing of people over and over and over again. We can assume AB purposefully uses the term “murder simulator” to recall good ol’ Jack Thompson’s railing against GTA, and in that context they’re probably right – I’ve probably killed more virtual people in Uncharted than I did in GTA4. (Not counting driving accidents, of course.)

Gred: Sucks that it wouldn’t have sold without shooting: Herry hoo. [Translation: Very true.]

Too much killing: Herry hoo. (Though I still see the high body count as a difference of degree and not kind from most other games.)

I love that running people over in GTA games doesn’t count! Even if you try to play the earlier games as a “nice” criminal who avoids killing the “innocent” (Niko can’t really be played as nice), you can’t avoid running people over or the game will just be hell. So it’s a “necessary” evil, the necessity being that it would otherwise take forever to drive anywhere!

And then, suddenly, we were both hit by a truck.

>The Calm Before The Ridiculousness

>It’s 9/8/09, which means that in a little over 24 hours I’m going to be in some sort of Beatles-induced catatonic stupor, and then the wheels totally fly off shortly after that in terms of the fall release calendar. This is probably a good place, then, for me to check in before I check out.

So, then, first things first – please accept my humble apologies for the lack of regular updating. Blame it on the crappy summer release schedule, which coincided perfectly with an absurd uptick in my own personal music-related endeavors.

The last few weeks, though, have yielded both some free time and some really, really good games to be played. Here’s some quick impressions:

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum

Without question, a Game of the Year candidate – notwithstanding the fact that 2009 has been a pretty shitty year in terms of quality. But the real question is why. There’s a number of things to appreciate about developer Rocksteady’s latest effort; they took the hottest comic book/movie license out there and avoided the easy cash-in opportunity. They used the animated series – which is better source material for an interactive experience, anyway – and crafted a remarkable playground in which to explore. I always felt that Sam Fisher would kick the shit out of Solid Snake – and without endless cutscenes to muck it up – but I’m pretty sure that Batman could kick the shit out of both of them, at the same time. The game features fantastic combat mechanics, but doesn’t rely on combat to pad the game’s length, to the game’s tremendous credit. The Riddler’s puzzles offer tremendous incentive to explore every nook and cranny of Arkham Island, and the 40 Achievement Points I got for solving every riddle and finding every hidden message were among the most satisfying I’ve ever accumulated.

  • Shadow Complex

I spent my free time this weekend on my 2nd playthrough, with the objective of finding every hidden item. There were only 2 or 3 that really tried my patience; I’m still not entirely sure how I was able to nab them. (They involved breaking blue boxes, in case you’re already familiar with the game and what that means.) I found myself comparing Shadow Complex with Batman:AA more than once; it’s true that I played them more or less at the same time, but the two games complement each other in pretty interesting ways, I think – mostly in terms of encouraging exploration and offering incentives for backtracking. I’ll put it up there in GOTY territory as well; certainly it’s the XBLA’s best offering this year.

  • Trials HD

I love Trials HD; I just wish I was better at it. I’ve managed to finish all the hard levels, but I’ll never get beyond a bronze medal in any of them, and my ineptitude at the ultra-hard levels is discouraging. Difficulty aside, though, the game is an absolute blast; it’s beautiful, accessible and addictive, which is really all you could ask for in a downloadable title. The game features some of the best leaderboard integration I’ve ever seen, in any game; it also features the quickest restart of any game I’ve ever played, which is a big deal since failure is constant in the higher difficulties.

  • Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box

I was a big fan of the first Layton game and very much looked forward to this latest iteration. I’m a bit torn on it, though, to be quite honest, and it’s puzzling (ha!) to figure out why. The game’s puzzles are much more varied than in the first game; the puzzles even have a bit of context, which makes them feel important (unlike the first game); there’s a wonderfully-integrated scratch pad which lets you scribble notes, trace paths and quickly add up sums. So, really, the game ought to be a better experience; and yet, for some reason, I quickly found myself racing through it – sometimes using a walkthrough, which totally defeats the purpose – and the game’s ending was utterly preposterous. I’m curious as to why I had such an unfortunate experience with it, but I will say this – as quick as Trials HD is when it comes to restarting a level, Layton 2 is tediously slow when it comes to retrying a puzzle, so much so that I probably resorted to a walkthrough because I didn’t feel like waiting 10 seconds if I got something wrong. If nothing else, though, the game did offer up my favorite game-related quote in quite some time:

“As a gentleman, I feel that it is my duty to take one of these balloons.”

  • Wolfenstein

I’d forgotten this was on my Gamefly queue. And, well, what do you know – here we are a few weeks later and I’d nearly forgotten I played it for about an hour.

————

Here’s my to-do list for the rest of 2009.

*All titles 360 unless otherwise noted*

MUST PLAY:
Beatles Rock Band
Dirt 2
Scribblenauts (DS)
Mario & Luigi 2 (DS)
Brutal Legend
Uncharted 2 (PS3)
Borderlands
Modern Warfare 2
Dragon Age
L4D2

INTERESTED IN:
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
Katamari Forever (PS3)
Dead Space Extraction (Wii)
Alpha Protocol
Ratchet & Clank (PS3)
Forza 3
Blur
Assassin’s Creed 2
Saboteur

DO NOT CARE
Halo ODST